Murderer's death sentence overturned

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An appellate judge has overturned an Augusta death sentence imposed nearly 21 years ago.

Judge John E. Morse Jr. ruled Ernest U. Morrison's convictions for rape, robbery and murder should stand, but the death sentence must be reversed for ineffective assistance of counsel.

Mr. Morrison's lead defense attorney, O.L. Collins, not only did not do anything to prepare for trial, he advocated for a death sentence for his client, wrote Judge Morse, of the Eastern Judicial Circuit, who was assigned Mr. Morrison's habeas corpus petition, an appellate step in which the defendant challenges the legality of his punishment.

Mr. Morrison, 47, pleaded guilty in Richmond County Superior Court and waived his right to a jury trial on the issue of punishment. He was sentenced to death for the Jan. 9, 1987, murder of Mary Edna Griffin.

District Attorney Ashley Wright, the latest prosecutor to inherit the case in the past two decades, received a copy of the judge's 55-page order Thursday.

"We have to talk to the (victim's) family and digest the order before making any final decision," Ms. Wright said.

Russ Williard of the attorney general's office, which defends the state when death row cases are appealed, said attorneys are reviewing the decision. Either side may appeal Judge Morse's ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court, or Mr. Morrison's case could be returned to Augusta for a new sentencing trial.

Mrs. Griffin, 54, and her husband had allowed Mr. Morrison to stay at their home for a few days. They didn't know he had just escaped from a South Carolina jail.

Judge Morse noted in his ruling that evidence of Mr. Morrison's guilt was so overwhelming, nothing an attorney did would have changed the conviction. Thus, he found no reason to set aside the guilty plea.

The same was not true of the death sentence, the judge wrote.

The 1987 sentencing judge might have been swayed to sentence Mr. Morrison to life in prison instead of death, but his attorneys did nothing to uncover and present such evidence, Judge Morse wrote. Mr. Collins, now deceased, did not even read the discovery provided by the prosecutor, he wrote. The second attorney appointed two weeks before trial simply did not have time to prepare, the judge wrote.

Mr. Collins' failure to investigate was aggravated by his actual advocacy for a death sentence, Judge Morse wrote. Mr. Collins even concocted evidence to support his argument that Mr. Morrison deserved to die, he wrote.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

TIMELINE


JAN. 9, 1987: Ernest Morrison rapes and murders Mary Edna Griffin.


OCT. 30-NOV. 2, 1987: Mr. Morrison pleads guilty and receives a death sentence.


NOV. 10, 1988: Georgia's Supreme Court affirms on direct appeal.


AUG. 9, 1989: Mr. Morrison files a state habeas corpus petition.


SEPT. 16, 1992: A habeas judge orders a new trial for Mr. Morrison on the issue of mental retardation and sends the case back to Richmond County Superior Court.


MARCH 5, 1999: A jury rules that Mr. Morrison is not mentally retarded. Three more years pass before a trial court denies a motion for a new trial.


APRIL 8, 2005: An amended habeas corpus petition is filed for Mr. Morrison.


APRIL 18: A judge rules Mr. Morrison is entitled to a new sentencing trial.

Comments (19) Add comment
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nonumberplease
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nonumberplease 05/02/08 - 04:54 am
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bull****!

bull****!

patriciathomas
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patriciathomas 05/02/08 - 05:18 am
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Legislating from the bench

Legislating from the bench with a b.s. cover. Anti-death penalty judges keep plenty of their lawyer friends busy.

trujustis
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trujustis 05/02/08 - 05:41 am
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I think Judge Morse needs to

I think Judge Morse needs to be checked for mental retardation

imaksin
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imaksin 05/02/08 - 05:54 am
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Cheers to the Chronicle on

Cheers to the Chronicle on its crusade to make sure all defendants have their right to endless appeals.

khayes7356
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khayes7356 05/02/08 - 06:47 am
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If all of this is true and

If all of this is true and not just something that is made up by the appeals lawyers, every judge that has reviewed this case should be disbarred.

Rose
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Rose 05/02/08 - 10:02 am
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I am for the death penalty,

I am for the death penalty, but the laws have to be followed. His attorney should have made sure that happened, and so should the prosectors.The same goes for gathering evidence before going to trial.I was on jury one time when there was plenty of evidence that a crime was committed, but nothing connecting the defendant to the crime.The judge was furious, and stopped the trial and ruled him not guilty.He might have been guilty, but there was no evidence agaist him.The law has to be followed.

BigPix
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BigPix 05/02/08 - 10:37 am
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I find it incredible that

I find it incredible that even today lawyers have the audacity to show up for trial woefully unprepared. There is simply no excuse for this lack of professionalism. I don't know if there is a "scoreboard" the public can access to find out a lawyer's track record. The lawyers from the Public Defender's office (PDO) are usually the worst ones. With exceptions, a lawyer working full time in the PDO can't seem to find a law firm willing to hire him/her for better pay. In a criminal case, usually we have a situation where a loser is "defended" by another loser. Funny, but sad. The job of a lawyer is to advocate for the best interest of the client, regardless of guilt or innocence. Our justice system is still evolving. To peg one's legal efforts to the presumed guilt of a client is unconscionable. I suggest that public funds be invested in hiring "real" defense lawyers when capital cases are involved. This is not so much to exonerate the guilty party. Rather, this is to ensure the wheels of justice can roll smoothly and fairly. The justice system we have is a mere charade for the indigent defendants. The PDO is, more likely than not, a glorified escort service to the execution chambers.

mable8
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mable8 05/02/08 - 01:28 pm
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BigPix: you can access the GA

BigPix: you can access the GA Bar Assn web and they have a list of current attorneys on suspension, etc. When an attorney is retained to represent an individual, that is what they are supposed to do, regardless of whether they are court-appointed or paid by the defendant. The problem is that lawyers are too interested in the large sums of money they can charge; the less paid, the less adequate and appropriate representation. Perhaps attorneys, both private and public, should have citizen review boards, similar to those for law enforcement, to monitor how they perform their duties as attorneys.

FAIR TAX Now
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FAIR TAX Now 05/02/08 - 01:49 pm
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Oh cares if his attorney

Oh cares if his attorney prepared for the trial or not. Even the judge said that there was overwhelming evidence that he was guilty. Did you read the story where he was an escapee from SC and then took advantage of good hospitality of letting him stay in their home by committing rape, robbery, and murder of the wife. I don't care if he was never even assigned a trial date, he should be put to death. This weak liberal society we live in has to get over the fear of putting someone innocent or not represented properly to death when innocent people are dying everyday because criminals aren't dealt with. I wish the state of Georgia would take the lead in Death Penalities carried out. I wish the national news would talk about how each day GA puts someone to death until all on death row are gone. We have to get a back bone in this country or we will lose it one day.

SaraEmigMeyers
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SaraEmigMeyers 05/02/08 - 04:21 pm
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As a public defender I resent

As a public defender I resent the comment that public defenders only work there because a better firm will not hire them. That is simply untrue. Some public defenders, like myself, choose to do public defense because we want to help people less fortunate than our selves. The legislature refuses to give public defender offices enough public defenders to help like we wish we could.

christian134
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christian134 05/02/08 - 04:26 pm
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What is different? Did the

What is different? Did the victim Mary Griffin reappear somewhere? Is she alive and living happy somewhere all these years? If the answer is no then why is this scum given a chance at more life filled with the perks of 3 square meals, clean clothes, etc.? ......

UncleBill
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UncleBill 05/03/08 - 12:19 am
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When I was a younger man I

When I was a younger man I was strongly in favor of the death penalty. Now I realize that life in prison without parole is actually a more terrible sentence, as the suffering goes on much longer. Think about how terrible to know that you will spend every day in the same cell, no matter what, until you die naturally. There is also the issue of what if you execute the wrong man (not true in this case). My current opinion, the death penalty satisfies vengance, more than justice. And if you are really going to execute them, why not just have a good ole public hanging and forget the injection.

BigPix
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BigPix 05/03/08 - 10:24 pm
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FAIR TAX you're a lost cause.

FAIR TAX you're a lost cause. Innocent or not? Adequately represented or not? You are out of your mind. With so many corrupt and inept investigators out there, better be not in the wrong place at the wrong time when a crime is committed. Guess what? You're guilty because you can't afford a good defense lawyer. Justice and vengeance are two separate concepts. Vigilance in our criminal justice system is not about coddling criminals. If you have been following the news, every so often a condemned inmate is exonerated of a crime he did not commit; thanks to advances in DNA testing. What you are not understanding is this: In a criminal proceeding there are two parties in contention. There is the prosecutor, and then there is the defendant. All you probably see is good versus evil. You'll be surprised how evil the "good guys" are in reality. How do we ensure fairness and justice in a trial? By making sure the defendant is adequately represented. Who stands to gain the most in a fair trial? You, me, and our society as a whole.

BigPix
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BigPix 05/03/08 - 10:32 pm
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Sara, there are many of us

Sara, there are many of us who realize what you go through and the fiscal challenges faced by the PDOs across the U.S. More power to you.

GameCock BoB
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GameCock BoB 05/04/08 - 06:35 pm
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A first year law student

A first year law student would have know that the sentencing in this case was going to be overturned. The attorney must always fight for the life of the client. Oh yes, he should be executed. Make no mistake about this, he should die or live at the hands of how the family feel now. It is an easy case to inheret.

Da Voice Inside Your Head
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Da Voice Inside Your Head 05/05/08 - 08:28 am
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I used to be a big Death

I used to be a big Death Penalty Supporter. But now it all comes down to how much money you have to hire a "Dream"Team of lawyers.. If you're some poor slob you get the Death Penalty. If you're rich you go free or get a reduced sentence. Ithink being locked in a concrete box for the rest of your life is a lot worse than a quick painless death. AS I've said many times before stealing this quote, "I believe in Capital Punishmnt. The more CAPITAL you have the less PUNISHMENT you get."

BigPix
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BigPix 05/05/08 - 08:30 am
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Da Voice, your head is right

Da Voice, your head is right on that one.

sharpshooter
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sharpshooter 05/05/08 - 01:39 pm
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Only in

Only in America....yea...yea....

*"James Brown song verse"

missingaluv1
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missingaluv1 10/16/08 - 10:06 pm
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I can not believe what I have

I can not believe what I have just read...yes he escaped from SC, but it does not explain why he was being held...a women gave him a place to stay and he betrayed her kindness by tying up her mother and raping the daughter...it does not state the extreme violence involved in the murder of Edna Griffin...or how he stole her car and fled the state....or how he attemped to escape from RCDC....or his crimes prior to all this....some of you state you are for death and some are not....imagine if it was your sister, mother, aunt, or grandmother and everyday at any given time the realization that the taxes you have paid your whole entire life pays for the up-keep of the one person that extinguished the life force of your family....that very thought has and will forever make me for the death penalty.....this scum has been on death row for over 20 years and now they pull this....he confessed and begged the judge to sentence him to death...everyone preaches that it is the criminals right to appeal, rights this and rights that...but you never hear about the victims rights....NEVER...what about those left behind....someone needs to sit down and study this case and get our conviction back

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